WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- The Indians have never been shy about putting the ace label on C.C. Sabathia.

"He's been our guy from Day 1," pitching coach Carl Willis said. "We went out and took him with a first-round pick knowing he's a guy that should be able to carry the load."

At 6-foot-7, 290 pounds, Sabathia is used to carrying quite a load as it is.

The Indians have long expected a lot out of Sabathia, as evidenced by the fact that when the 25-year-old gets the start in Sunday night's season opener against the White Sox, it will be the third Opening Day start of his six-year career.

But the problem with strapping the leadership of a rotation on his broad shoulders at such a young age was that Sabathia simply wasn't ready for the job title.

"I took it too seriously, as far as trying to live up to it," Sabathia admitted. "Being 20 or 21 years old and being looked at as an ace of the staff, I put too much pressure on myself. I overanalyzed every performance."

Sabathia has always tried to live up to his billing with one blazing 98-mph fastball after another.

That fastball, though, hasn't always been able to get him out of trouble. In fact, he found himself in quite a bit of trouble in 2005.

During a June 5 start against Boston, Sabathia gave up a career-high nine runs in four innings of work. That was part of an ugly month that saw him go 1-1 with a 6.83 ERA in five starts.

It didn't get any better in July, when Sabathia went 1-5 with a 6.68 ERA.

"He hit rock bottom," general manager Mark Shapiro said.

Opposing batters were picking up on Sabathia's slight tipping of his pitches, and critics were once again pointing to his weight as a reason for his lack of endurance over the course of a full season.

Clearly, something had to change.

"He was at a pivotal point where he could have went one [of] two ways," Shapiro said. "He could have given into it. But he didn't. He bowed his neck and made some significant adjustments, both in his delivery and his pitches."

The biggest adjustment, Sabathia said, came when he learned to stay tall.

An ace pitcher knows the value of staying tall, in the figurative sense. He is, after all, expected to be a leader to a rotation.

But what Sabathia learned last season is that he also has to stay tall in the literal sense.

"When I do that, I hide the ball a little better," he said. "It makes it tougher for hitters to see the ball. That's something I've been working on."

Sabathia also had to work on adjusting his delivery. He had been prone to using different deliveries for different pitches, and the opposition took notice.

"Everybody talks about repeating your delivery," Willis said. "With him, it was about having the same delivery with every pitch. His delivery from a fastball to a breaking ball to a changeup was so different, it was almost as if you could tell what was coming."

The adjustment Sabathia had to make wasn't just physical, but mental, as well.

"We had to get him focusing on the delivery and delivering the ball to the plate and not thinking about what you want the ball to do," Willis said. "I think it was key for him, because hitters didn't know what was coming."

The results spoke for themselves. From Aug. 5 through the end of the season, Sabathia was a model of consistency, and the team rallied around him to make a late charge toward the White Sox.

Over his last 11 starts, Sabathia, who last April was signed to a contract extension that keeps him in a Tribe uniform through 2008, went 9-1 with a 2.24 ERA.

Not only was his performance down the stretch gratifying, it was also a relief.

"To tell you the truth," he said, "I was worried about making the adjustments and not being able to throw my fastball like I usually do. I was worried it would take a few miles per hour off to gain control. To see the results I got is definitely going to help me the rest of my career and this year, because I know I can make the adjustments and still perform."

With those adjustments and with that performance, Sabathia finally lived up to his ace tag when his club needed him the most in '05. And as the '06 season dawns, he'll be counted on once again to carry the staff.

The only difference this time around is that Sabathia has earned the ace distinction.

"I think I fit into that more now, as opposed to it being forced on me," he said. "It means a lot, especially having grown up in this organization. I want to be the one to take the ball in the big games, and I'll get the chance to do it here."